The Haditha investigation started earlier than previously thought after a Marine Corps investigator noticed key discrepancies between the physical evidence and the reports from the Marines involved. The New York Times reveals that the Pentagon had already referred the matter to criminal investigators weeks before Time Magazine reported the alleged atrocities at the end of March, from a presentation of the allegations by the magazine:
A military investigator uncovered evidence in February and March that contradicted repeated claims by marines that Iraqi civilians killed in Haditha last November were victims of a roadside bomb, according to a senior military official in Iraq.
Among the pieces of evidence that conflicted with the marines’ story were death certificates that showed all the Iraqi victims had gunshot wounds, mostly to the head and chest, the official said. …
When Colonel Watt described the findings to Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the senior ground commander in Iraq, on March 9, they raised enough questions about the marines’ veracity that General Chiarelli referred the matter to the senior Marine commander in Iraq, who ordered a criminal investigation that officials say could result in murder charges being brought against members of the unit.
Colonel Watt’s findings also prompted General Chiarelli to order a parallel investigation into whether senior Marine officers and enlisted personnel had attempted to cover up what happened.
From this description, rather than the impression of official denial and cover-up, the Marine Corps took decisive action early to ensure that evidence could be retained and that investigators started working on unraveling the deaths in Haditha. By the time that Time reported this incident publicly in the March 27th issue, the US military had already determined that war crimes had potentially been committed at Haditha. Time Magazine reported as much in its story, noting that it presented the military with the information that started the investigation.
Another key to the investigation was the payment of compensation to the families of Haditha’s victims. The military received a lot of criticism for its failure to understand Arab culture in the early days of the Iraq war when it failed to compensate families for the collateral loss of life in villages where we operated. Blood money helps keep peace and avoids the perpetuation of hostilities between tribes for unintended deaths. The Pentagon now has policies in place which allow the military to pay compensation in those instances, allowing the issue to rest rather than fester. The Marines paid $38,000 to the families of those killed at Haditha, despite an initial finding that the victims participated in an attack on US forces, which eliminated their eligibility for compensation. Colonel Watt’s investigation uncovered the payment by Major Dana Hyatt, who says he was ordered to make the payment by his superiors. In this case, the advice “follow the money” may apply.
The White House has announced that the investigations will be publicly released once completed:
Press Secretary Tony Snow said that he has been assured by the Pentagon that “all the details” will be made available. “We’ll have a picture of what happened,” Snow said.
That will help to build some confidence in the process used to determine the validity of the charges. Once the reports have entered the public domain, we can expect the blogosphere to thoroughly vet the documents and the evidence. If they provide as damning a case as we have been led to believe, then charges should be filed and the accused be given a public trial or court-martial for their alleged offenses.
Addendum: An interesting figure has entered this story. Paul Hackett, the Iraq War veteran and attorney that failed to win election in a special election for an Ohio Congressional seat, represents Captain James Kimber, an officer relieved of command after his unit conducted themselves improperly during an interview with a British news team. Hackett emphasizes that Kimber knew nothing of the Haditha incident and that the highest-ranking person under investigation is the staff sergeant who led the convoy when the roadside bomb exploded and started the chain of events.